One huge challenge I see in social practice is an enormous shift in the kind of working method and knowledge base required of these artists than those who work exclusively in the studio. If social practice involves an artist “inserting” him or herself into a community, the types of knowledge and skills required of that artist expand exponentially.
Of course, it’s difficult to make that statement lightly, because contemporary studio artists work in incredibly varied ways, many involving huge amounts of contextual research into history, society, and space. Not to mention that such artists, in order to navigate the territories in which they operate, often need a fairly solid art historical and theoretical knowledge base. But artists operating in social arenas must strive to understand the communities they inhabit, even briefly, and they must be completely self-aware and reflective that their actions are of consequence within such communities. They must even be prepared to face the fact that their presence might be unwelcome, unwanted. These artists must be prepared to fail on a wholly different scale than studio artists – a very public and a very consequential scale.
The weighty social practices I am talking about here are largely community-based, and exist outside of the safe space of the museum or gallery. These practices are in the public, involve city government, require groups of people buy in to the project, and call for often massive funding. Amy Franceschini’s Victory Gardens project in San Francisco was on a city-wide scale, whereas The Watts House Project operates in a very small, specific community in Watts, but perhaps affects peoples’ lives (for better or worse) even more deeply because of its focus. Marjeta Potrc’s interest lies in informal cities and design solutions in places like the West Bank and Caracas, and her massive research into these communities reflects the social practice aspect of her work.
Yet to juggle the huge range of contextual knowledge required, the specific proficiencies needed in the realm the artist makes his or her own (i.e. housing, philanthropy, building social connections, pedagogy, marketing) and the added ability to reflect, to remove oneself from everything and break down one’s systems of doing things, analyze the hierarchies and power structures at work, and make connections amongst all the different spheres of one’s knowledge is a tough prospect. As the scale of the project grows, it becomes less and less likely that all of these skills and knowledge can be embodied in one person. Teams must be put together, and the artist must acquire yet another skill – how to run a working and dynamic organization. Although social practice artists often talk about collaboration (more on that later), it is really organizational practice that forms the infrastructure for massive project production to occur.
Perhaps it is the socio-cultural-spatial-economic building of knowledge, the work with groups of people, the organizational capacity, and the rigorous approach to a problem that distinguishes the social practice artist.
Quickly back to the pedagogical theme of these posts, though, and a final question: How can the academy support this type of knowledge-building for MFAs in social practice programs? What spheres of understanding do they feel are most primary, and how does this privileging reflect the hierarchies within these institutions themselves?
How do you teach someone to be a visionmaker, teacher, communicator, connector, housing expert, engineer, marketing expert, director, and artist all at once in a two-year program?
You don’t, not really. You nurture the desire and hope they can rise to the challenge.